Friday, May 13, 2011

Movie Review: Kiss of the Spider Woman

Molina (William Hurt) and Valentin (Raul Julia).
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Directed By: Hector Babenco
Screenplay By: Leonard Schrader
Based on the Novel By: Manuel Puig
Starring: William Hurt, Raul Julia and Sonia Braga

"The nicest thing about feeling happy is that you think you'll never be unhappy again."
~Luis Molina (William Hurt)

A few months back, I read Kiss of the Spider Woman on the recommendation of a friend who is obsessed with both Manuel Puig's novel and the 1985 film adaptation. If she hadn't suggested I pick up the book I would have remained unaware of this powerful ode to friendship, heroism and love -- it's all as intriguing as its title.

The movie grips you right from the opening frame -- a woman, sitting in a bathtub, covered in bubbles -- while a man's voice softly narrates her actions. And so begins the film adaptation of Argentine author Puig's famous 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Screenwriter Leonard Schrader and director Hector Babenco were allowed a lot of open interpretation when it came to the style and visuals for the film. Puig's novel is sparse, in every sense of the word -- there are no descriptions of the prison cell or even the physical appearances of the two central characters. The novel is structured much like a play, devoid of a traditional narrative voice or any unspoken thoughts -- we only know what the characters are actually saying out loud and they tend to say things in short, concise sentences. This allows for more open interpretation than your average novel or film as to the true meanings and motivations behind the characters' actions.

Set sometime during the 1970s in Argentina, Kiss of the Spider Woman focuses on the blossoming friendship between two cellmates -- the openly homosexual window-dresser, Luis Molina (William Hurt), and a Marxist journalist named Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia) who is willing to risk his life and endure torture for a political cause. To keep Valentin's mind distracted from his concerns for his fellow political prisoners, Molina describes films he'd seen prior to his arrest; most of which are pulp movies that Molina doesn't recognize as blatant Nazi propaganda. While the majority of the film is set in the prison, there are scenes of the pulp movies Molina narrates to Valentin interspersed throughout, as well as flashbacks into both of the mens lives -- where we meet Valentin's girlfriend, Marta (Sonia Braga, who plays three roles in the film, including Leni Lamaison, the character in the Nazi propaganda film, and the titular Spider Woman) and we witness Molina's unrequited love for Gabriel (Nuno Leal Maia), a waiter he meets at his favourite restaurant.

The simplicity of the prison setting is overshadowed by the complexity of its two central characters. It's a study in relationships, specifically the gradually growing affection between Molina and Valentin. Despite their obvious differences in both personality and opinion, (and the hint of treachery that surrounds them) the film slowly brings the two men closer and closer together as more of their past and personal beliefs are revealed to one another.

When, near the start of the film, Valentin belittles Molina's constant desire to talk about frivolous films ("Your life is as trivial as your movies!"), Molina calmly points out that people sometimes deal with tough situations differently ("Unless you have the keys to that [prison] door, I will escape in my own way, thank you"). The realization that the two men must depend on one another for survival is what, ultimately, brings them together.

As Molina, Hurt gives one of his finest performances (he earned an Oscar that year for Best Actor). One of the remarkable things about his performance was his ability to make the audience view Molina the same way Valentin does as the film progresses. At first Molina does appear to be nothing more than a flamboyant man who relies on pulp movies as a desperate means of escapism. By the middle of the film, after the revelation of his biggest secret, Hurt portrays Molina as a man slowly being torn apart by both his decisions and his growing affection for Valentin, thus gaining audience support and sympathy. By the end of the film the viewer realizes, along with Valentin, that Molina is anything but frivolous as was initially thought. A deeply conflicted man, Molina is in over his head. One scene, in particular, stands out -- Molina talking on a pay phone to an unknown person. The audience can't hear the voice on the other line, but we know the news is bad because Molina's face slowly drops in devastation. It's Hurt's finest (and most emotionally powerful) moment in the entire film and it was expressed with very little dialogue. Playing the sometimes harsh and brutal Valentin, Julia gives a wonderful, subtle and restrained performance. His chemistry with Hurt is palpable and, as the film progresses, we witness Julia instil Valentin with a controlled, yet passionate, fire for both politics and Marta, the love of his life.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a remarkable achievement -- it's not an easy task to adapt Puig's novel into a film. This complex character study was, thankfully, put into the hands of a director like Babenco who knew how to interpret the story on the big screen. And, luckily, actors like Hurt and Julia were brought in to convey the characters' motivations perfectly.

You know it's the sign of a powerful film when, days after viewing it, you find yourself still thinking about it.


Valentin (Raul Julia) "meets" the Spider Woman (Sonia Braga).